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Understanding Screenwriting #108: Side Effects, Like Someone in Love, Point Blank, Downton Abbey, Parade’s End, & Smash

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Understanding Screenwriting #108: Side Effects, Like Someone in Love, Point Blank, Downton Abbey, Parade’s End, & Smash

Coming Up In This Column: Side Effects, Like Someone in Love, Point Blank, Downton Abbey, Parade’s End, Smash, but first…

Fan mail: David Ehrenstein, reacting to my comments on Cat Ballou, thought that all the things I liked about the writing and acting came together “thanks to efforts of that controversial new-fangled invention known as the Director.” I didn’t get around to mentioning the director, Elliot Silverstein, because this is one of those films, like M*A*S*H (1970), Chariots of Fire (1981), and Thelma & Louise (1991), that succeeds in spite of its director rather than because of him. Silverstein is very sloppy about where he puts the camera and the acting is all over the place. This was his only truly successful film, and he soon went back to television, where he started.

Side Effects (2013. Written by Scott Z. Burns. 106 minutes.)

Better than Hitchcock. Both Alfred Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick were interested in psychiatry. In the mid-‘40s, Hitchcock persuaded Selznick to buy a novel that was, according to Hitchcock’s biographer, Donald Spoto, “a bizarre tale of witchcraft, satanic cults, psychopathology, murder, and mistaken identities.” (The background material here is from Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock.) Hitchcock presented some ideas on how a movie could be made out of the material to Ben Hecht, who wrote the screenplay for Spellbound (1945). Hecht’s version deals with an amnesiac who replaces a man scheduled to become the head of a mental hospital. The amnesiac is accused of murder and with a helpful female psychiatrist works out his problems. Since she’s played in the film by Ingrid Bergman, he falls in love with her as well. The film was a commercial success, but it’s rather clunky, like many ‘40s films about psychiatry. And like many Hitchcock films, it’s less about character than about giving the director a chance to show off. As befits Selznick, the film is a slick production with stars (Gregory Peck as the amnesiac) in a romantic mode.

Side Effects is also a thriller about a mentally disturbed person and includes murder, and as much as I love and admire Hecht, Burns’s script is infinitely better than Hecht’s. Burns gets into the story and the characters quickly, and he doesn’t have to lay out the characters, especially the disturbed young woman, Emily Taylor, to fit the psychobabble of the trade. Burns starts with a shot of an apartment house that I suspect is sort of a tribute to the opening shot in Psycho (1960), and then we go inside to find a lot of blood. Burns flashes back three months to the return of Emily’s husband from prison for insider trading. His release seems to disturb her, to the point where she drives her car into a cement wall. At the E.R., she’s treated by Dr. Jonathan Banks, who in a nice twist doesn’t fall in love with her. He does suspect that at least some of her problems come from the drugs she’s been taking. The doctor is possibly not the only one suspicious. Audience members may be too, since they know the film is directed by Steven Soderberg, who already showed in Erin Brockovich (2000) that he doesn’t believe in better living through chemistry. And Emily kills…well, I know it’s only 25 minutes into the film, but I’m going to avoid as many spoilers as I can. What’s shocking about the death is that it happens only 25 minutes in. After all, Hitch set the standard with Psycho that you can kill off a big star, but only at 40 minutes in. So we’re unnerved, and rightly so.

Whereas Hitch and Hecht were making a big, glossy Hollywood film of its period, Burns is focused more on character. Emily is more than just a case study, although we may not think so right away. Burns and Rooney Mara, undoubtedly with help from that “new-fangled invention the Director,” do a brilliant job of showing the effects of the different drugs she takes on Emily. The peril of prescription drug use is only one red herring that Burns throws out. Burns and Mara’s detailing gets even more spectacular, so much so that you may want to go back and see the film a second time to see how well they’ve set it all up. Burns’s plotting is a lot better than Hecht’s, and Soderbergh’s direction is a whole lot better than Hitch’s, since, as we’ve seen in many of his films, he’s very interested in character and knows how to get great performances out of the actors. Several reviews have called Side Effects a “Hitchcockian” thriller. It is, but it’s better than the Master.

Like Someone in Love (2012. Written by Abbas Kiarostami, based on his play. 109 minutes.)

Like Someone in Love

Not another shaggy dog story…oh…wait a minute. You may remember from US #73 that I loved Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010) in part because it was a wonderful shaggy-dog story: Juliette Binoche’s Elle and William Shimell’s James meet, we assume for the first time, but then an innkeeper assumes they’re married, so they play along. And it seems more and more like they have had some relationship in the past…and we never find out.

I assumed from the beginning of Like Someone In Love that Kiarostami wasn’t doing that this time around. He starts with a long scene in a Tokyo club where we listen to a young girl, Akiko, talk on the phone and to her friends. She’s a college student and works nights as an escort. We know she’s a liar from her conversation with her boyfriend about where she is at present. She says she has a test tomorrow, but we’re not convinced. She says her grandmother is in town, and we’re not convinced about that either until we hear from grandma on the phone. Her pimp, who seems like an ordinary businessman (certainly not your typical pimp, either in clothing or attitude), wants her to take tonight’s job, since it’s a man he respects greatly. By the end of this sequence we feel grounded in Akiko’s world.

So she goes to the apartment of a retired professor, Takashi. Kiarostami again takes his time. We get a lot of detail about Takashi’s life and his apartment, the kind of detail I found missing in Amour (2012). And we watch the nuances between Akiko and Takashi. They don’t sleep together, and we suspect he just wants the companionship. She’s perfectly willing to just get a good night’s sleep in his bed.

The next morning he takes her to the college, where he used to teach. He sees her talking with her boyfriend, who seems to be manhandling her. After she goes into the college, the boyfriend comes over to Takashi, assuming the older man is Akiko’s grandfather, and like Elle in Certified Copy, Takashi lets him believe the lie. That should have made me suspicious, but the connection didn’t occur to me until just now when I was writing this: Takashi thinks he boyfriend is really in love with her. The threesome spends some time driving about Tokyo. We are not in the car quite as much as we were in Kiarostami’s hyper-realistic 2002 film Ten, but almost.

The realistic detail of this film makes us feel that this isn’t the shaggy-dog story of Certified Copy.) And then the film just stops. The relationships aren’t given closure, and Kiarostami leaves what will happen to these people literally up in the air. And I thought, damn, he’s done it again. I should complain that this trip doesn’t take us to a destination, but the trip and its passengers were so interesting I didn’t mind. Well, not too much.

Point Blank (1967. Screenplay by Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse, and Rafe Newhouse, based on the novel The Hunter by Donald E. Westlake. 92 minutes.)

Point Blank

Breaking up is not that hard to do. Donald E. Westlake, one of this country’s most prolific crime novelists, has developed almost as many pseudonyms as blacklisted writers did in the ‘40s. One pseudonym was Richard Stark, which he used for a series of novels about Parker, a tough, cool professional thief. The first Parker novel, The Hunter (1962), became the basis for this film (and also for the 1999 film Payback). The first drafts of Point Blank were by David and Rafe Newhouse, and their final draft got to British director John Boorman, who was getting ready to make his American film-directing debut.

Boorman set to work on the script with Alexander Jacobs, who had been an assistant to Boorman on Weekend. Both felt that the Newhouses’ screenplay was “a straight-forward gangster melodrama.” (The quote is from an interview Steven Farber conducted with Jacobs for the Winter 1968/69 issue of Film Quarterly, as is most of the factual additional information in this item.) Boorman and Jacobs wanted to make the script something more. Jacobs’s idea was to develop the character of “Walker” (Westlake would not let them use “Parker,” since he would only allow its use if they intended to make a series of Parker films, which they didn’t want to do), and he wrote scenes that explored Walker’s emotions as he deals with trying to get back the money a friend stole from him from a heist they did together. Boorman was less interested in showing Walker’s emotions directly. Jacobs told Farber that the difference was that while he was a passionate Jew, Boorman was a colder Anglo Saxon. Boorman felt Lee Marvin’s face would give them enough of what they needed. Jacobs’s screenplay lays out the emotions Walker has when he discovers his wife has committed suicide. Jacobs makes the scenes into a sequence, but Boorman broke them up in the cutting so we don’t get the development of Walker’s feelings. Boorman, like many directors of the period, was enchanted at the way the Europeans were breaking down conventional filmic narrative structure. So the focus in the film becomes more on Boorman’s filmmaking style than on the story, not unlike a lot of films of the period. Boorman assumes that just cutting back to Walker and his wife’s body will be enough to provoke emotion in the viewer, but it doesn’t. Leslie Halliwell quotes Boorman in his Film Guide as saying, “The fragmentation was necessary to give the characters and the situation ambiguity, to suggest another meaning beyond the immediate plot.” It’s not ambiguity so much as a lack of clarity, and yes, in the ‘60s directors really talked like that. (Boorman may also have been influenced by media theorist Marshall McLuhan, as were a number of other filmmakers. McLuhan famously said, “The medium is the message,” which many filmmakers took to mean that you didn’t have to tell a story with characters, but just, you know, make pure cinema like Hitchcock.)

On the other hand, Jacobs and Boorman agreed about a lot. Both men loved Los Angeles (and hated San Francisco). I had a chance to meet Jacobs a couple of years after the film came out and listened to him talk about Los Angeles. He had an extraordinary mind, which threw off so many ideas in such a short amount of time it was hard to keep up with him. You could see why Boorman, or anybody, would want to work with him. It’s the particular vision of Los Angeles that we get in the film (slick, modern, vaguely corrupt) that sticks with the viewers. One of the more memorable scenes, which is in the script, has Walker taking a car out on a test drive with the car-lot owner in it and wrecking the car with both of them in it while trying to get the owner to tell him where his former friend is. All of it happens under a distinctly Los Angeles freeway interchange.

For all their disagreements, Boorman and Jacobs collaborated very well, and followed up Point Blank with Hell in the Pacific (1968), which has even less dialogue than the earlier film. Jacobs felt that screenwriting should be as sparse as possible, saying, “I hate spare flesh on a script.” He thought that it was part of the job of the screenplay to write not only the characters, plot, and dialogue, but the tone of the film. His script for Point Blank impressed the young Walter Hill, who then tried for the same sparseness in his scripts.

Downton Abbey (2012. Season three written by Julian Fellowes. 585 minutes.)

Downton Abbey

On the events leading up to the death of Matthew Crawley. Several years ago, when the production of Downton Abbey was being organized, nobody connected with it knew it would become a monster international hit. There were as yet neither Downton Abbey tote bags nor “Do As the Dowager Countess Says” T-shirts. Nobody knew if the thing would work. As is typical on a potential series, the actors were hired for a limited time, in this case three seasons, undoubtedly with options for more. Actors are strange people, God bless them. Some of them love long runs, either on stage or in film or television, and some always want to move on. Dan Stevens, who played Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey, is one of those who wants a variety of experiences (I suspect the huge success of the series has meant a lot of offers have come his way), and at the end of the second season, he told the powers that be that he didn’t want to re-up for the fourth. So the writing problem facing Julian Fellowes was how to get rid of Matthew.

He could have just left, but since the Matthew-Mary romance was at the heart of the show, a sudden split seemed unlikely, even though Lady Mary can be a pain in the ass. Well, he could have gone a little crazy in the head and been institutionalized, a viable option if Fellowes thought there was a chance Stevens would come back to the show. But his return seemed unlikely, so the obvious approach was to kill him off. So does his old war wound come back, and after he can’t get it up, does he commit suicide? Darkly funny, but not quite what Downton Abbey is all about. Does somebody from his past come around to kill him? Or somebody we already know? Does Thomas Barrow, the gay valet, become insanely jealous and, aiming to shoot Lady Mary, hit Matthew instead?

Here’s how Fellowes handles it. The first episode deals with the wedding of Matthew and Lady Mary. You may remember from US #92 that even though Matthew had proposed, I thought he and Lady Mary were such diddlers that they may not actually tie the knot. Well, Fellowes has Stevens for the entire third season, so he might as well use him. It’s a nice wedding, although the arrival of Shirley MacLaine as Cora’s mother didn’t turn out to be as enthralling as we had all hoped. Apparently the cast loved having her around telling stories about working with Hitchcock and Wilder, but Fellowes never quite gave us the great double act with Dame Maggie that we all assumed he would. MacLaine may be back in the fourth season, so we can still hope.

By episode four, Lady Sybil has returned to Downton, very pregnant by her Irish husband, Tom Branson. She goes into labor, and while the local doctor, Dr. Clarkson, sees a potential problem, the high-society doctor Robert brings in, Sir Philip, dismisses it. Obviously Sir Philip never watched E.R., or he would have known from the 1995 “Lover’s Labor Lost” episode that pre-eclampsia is serious shit and often fatal. As it is with Lady Sybil. Fellowes has killed off minor characters before, but Lady Sybil is the first major character to go, suggesting that more death is coming to Downton.

Meanwhile, Matthew has been given money by the father of Lavinia, the woman Matthew was engaged to in the first season, and Robert lets him invest it in Downton. This involves Matthew and Tom Branson trying to persuade Robert to modernize the Downton estate, especially the arrangements for those who have houses on it. Fellowes’s writing here is a little too general, and it never becomes as clear as it might be exactly what it is Matthew does, but everybody agrees that it works, even the reluctant Robert. Late in the season, Fellowes has the family visit an estate in Scotland of a relative (I think he’s the Dowager Countess’s brother, but don’t bet the farm on it; I checked a bunch of websites, but they were all about how terrible Matthew’s death was). The family, headed by “Shrimpy,” an officer in the Foreign Service, is the anti-matter version of the Downton crowd. One element of that is that they haven’t modernized their estate, losing their money, and Shrimpy tells Robert that he did the right thing. That increases Robert’s understanding and even affection for Matthew.

Over the course of the season, Bates continues to struggle to get out of prison and is finally released, after which he and Anna bill and coo like two idiot teenagers, but given what they’ve been through and how much we like the characters, we won’t object too much. And Matthew and Lady Mary are happier than we thought they might be. The end of episode six is a cricket game between the people, including those downstairs, of Downton and the townspeople. It’s a beautiful warm summer English day. Robert and Matthew are on the same page on the estate, and, did I mention, Matthew and Lady Mary are deeply in love? The last line of my notes for this episode was: “Nothing good can come of this.”

So Fellowes has set us up beautifully. Lady Mary goes into labor and delivers a baby boy. Ah, someone to carry on the family line. And Matthew is ecstatic. He drives his convertible, with the top down, the wind blowing in his gorgeous blond hair. My wife, who was unaware of what was coming, said, “Nothing good can come of this” (well, we’ve been married for 48 years), and bang, Matthew was gone. But Fellowes has left us with more than enough to carry on in a fourth season.

Parade’s End (2012. Teleplay by Tom Stoppard, based on four novels by Ford Madox Ford. 300 minutes.)

Parade's End

No, it’s not Downton Abbey. So? So here we are in the 1910s in England, with a wealthy family living in a large house, one member of the house goes off to World War I, and social changes take place. Parade’s End ran in England in 2012, but it had the misfortune to run here on HBO (at this stage, I don’t have to make any more snarky comments about HBO, do I?) a mere two weeks after Downton Abbey finished its third season. So viewers who caught both found it almost impossible not to think about Downton Abbey while watching Parade’s End. What was striking to me was how different the two shows were.

Fellowes’s world is very large and contains multitudes. He has a big cast and runs storylines for most of them. In season three, he even had time for a cute little flirtation for Mrs. Pattmore, the cook. Stoppard’s (and Ford’s, I assume) is smaller. He’s focused on the married relationship of Christopher Tietjens, a rather reserved, not to say uptight, member of the British upper class, and his wife Sylvia, who spends most of the show pissed at Christopher for not being more emotional. They seem to be one of those couples that got married expecting the other person to fulfill something missing in themselves. I have known couples like that, as you may have, and it seldom works out. Unlike Matthew and Lady Mary or Bates and Anna, this isn’t a happy marriage. It gets off to an awkward start when Christopher marries a pregnant Sylvia, even though it isn’t clear to them whether the child she’s carrying is his or one of her lovers. But Christopher is a man who believes in honor, duty, and responsibility. One thing I love about the writing of this show is that it’s so subtle you have to be on your toes to pick up important details. No blood test is ever done on the son, Michael, but in the last of five hours, Sylvia says casually to her lover (not the other possible father) that Michael, now five, has all the Tietjens’ characteristics.

Early on, after the marriage has begun to go sour, Christopher meets Valentine, a suffragette much younger than he is. They almost kiss after a romantic carriage ride in the fog, but Christopher is determined not to involve her in anything that might be considered immoral. So we have the kind of British restraint we saw in Brief Encounter (1945) and the early days of the Matthew and Lady Mary relationship.

Even more than in Downtown Abbey we are in a hermetically sealed culture, in which gossip is relentless. At one point, Christopher’s father asks Christopher’s older brother Mark to find out the gossip about Christopher. He does, and all of it is bad and most of it untrue, including the assumption that not only have Christopher and Valentine done the nasty, but she’s had his bastard child. The father, without even asking Christopher if any of it is true, crawls into a bush on Groby, the family estate, and shoots himself with a hunting rifle. Down the road at Downton, somebody would have checked this out.

Christopher leaves his government job and joins the army. As the war starts, Stoppard is great at giving us little details about the stupidity of the skirmish, not just the usual blood in the trenches that Downton Abbey focused on. We have a brief storyline about Christopher trying to protect the horses in the cavalry, which is all a bit War Horse-y, and his commanding officer, General Campion, has a nice scene in which he complains about the ordering by the War Office of Christopher and his other soldiers to different billets. Typical of Stoppard, we don’t learn until the last hour that General Campion is Christopher’s godfather. Stoppard also intercuts between the war and upper classes indulging in their excesses back home, without anyone making a speech about it.

The heart of the show is the relationship between Christopher and Sylvia. In Downton Abbey, we pretty much know how we feel about the characters, which is part of what makes it so accessible to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Here your attitude about Christopher and Sylvia may change from scene to scene. Christopher is a prig, but he also has a firm belief in classical values. The General says at one point that he may be the last man in the world with such a belief. Sylvia is a flirt, but after she’s run away with a man once, she comes back to Christopher and vows not to have sex with anyone else, which she manages for five years. And then falls off the wagon. After that one, the last we see of her is asking General Campion if he will marry her if she gets a divorce from Christopher, which she has up until then refused to do. You have to be charmed by her gall. The General is gobsmacked and we never hear his answer. Benedict Cumberbatch, the current thinking woman’s sex god, nails all of Christopher’s nuances, and Rebecca Hall, whom we’ve watched turning into a great film actress, is his match as the flighty, irritating, but compelling Sylvia. Stoppard loved that aspect of the books. In an interview in the Los Angeles Times, Stoppard said, “But what was great was, it never really gave you a comfortable poise about what to think about the main characters.” Those two parts are much richer and deeper than any of the characters in Downton Abbey, which isn’t surprising since the focus is primarily on them.

The film is complete in itself, so Stoppard doesn’t have to worry about actors leaving next year.

Smash (2013. Various episodes. 60 minutes.)

Smash

Bring back Theresa Rebeck! As I mentioned in my comments on the first half season of this show in US #92, Theresa Rebeck, Smash’s creator, was dismissed at the end of the season. Given all the problems with the show, I wasn’t surprised. Smash has started up again without Rebeck, and it’s worse. The first season of the show was about the attempt to create a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe. The details were messy and not entirely convincing, but the show within a show at least provided a focus. The new season has split the focus several ways. The work on Bombshell continued, but the production was taken over by Eileen’s ex-husband Jerry. That only lasted a couple of episodes before Eileen figured out how to get it back. Meanwhile, Karen, the actress finally picked to star as Marilyn, began hanging out with Jimmy and Kyle. Jimmy is yet another asshole, this time a young song composer whom Karen thinks has talent. He may, although the songs of his we hear don’t sound all that impressive, and he has an ego the size of Texas. You can get away with that if you are already a big name, but most people won’t help you make it if you’re like that as an unknown. Derek, Bombshell’s asshole director, went off to stage a concert, apparently in a day and a half, for Veronica Moore, a Broadway diva who wants to change her image. That plotline also lasted only a couple of episodes. Then Derek agreed to direct a workshop of Jimmy and Kyle’s show, Hit List, but to nobody’s surprise, he and Jimmy butted heads. Ivy was in a musical version of Liaisons Dangereuses, but that closed after a few episodes, ending that plotline, so she replaced Karen as Marilyn.

So what is this show now about? I have no idea. Neither apparently does the audience, since this season opened very badly in the ratings, which have gotten worse. NBC may drop it sooner rather than later, although they’ve invested so much in the show that they may just let the episodes that have been filmed run out the clock. As in the first season, there are some bright spots. The performers are interesting; I particularly love Christian Borle as Tom, the composer. He seems like the one genuinely nice person among the characters. Sam, Tom’s sometime boyfriend last season and a real sweetie, was out on the road with a show, but he’s finally returned. I think Tom deserves to get laid on a regular basis after dealing with so many assholes (though he may have had an active sex life while Sam was away, we were never privy to it). (And speaking of assholes, I haven’t even mentioned Peter, the dramaturge they have brought in to work on the show). In “The Bells and Whistles,” written by Noelle Valdivia, Sam’s arrival led to a scene that shows what Smash should be. Tom and Julia dig a song out of their trunk at a cast party and Sam knocks everybody out singing it. The scene is the dream we all have of show business. Everybody agrees Tom and Julia should put it in Bombshell. Sam quits his job in the road show. But then, in keeping with the back-and-forth writing of the season, Tom and Julia agree the song won’t fit in Bombshell and Sam is out of two jobs. Maybe Tom isn’t going to get laid on a regular basis.

I suppose Smash may get around to being really sharp, but my hopes are diminishing fast. It’s a race now to see whether I stop watching before NBC cancels it.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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Review: Zombieland: Double Tap Shrugs Toward the End of the World

Behind the film’s self-awareness and irony is a hollow emotional core.

1.5

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Zombieland: Double Tap
Photo: Columbia Pictures

“Double tap,” the belated Zombieland sequel’s namesake, refers to the rule of shooting a zombie more than once in order to ensure that it’s dead. Like the rest of the rules devised by the series’s dweebish protagonist, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), it’s spelled out in large on-screen text, an amusingly self-aware touch in the original 2009 film that has, a decade later into our irony-poisoned present, lost its luster.

Part of that is because the sequel highlights these rules more frequently and prominently, injecting them with flashy text effects that are more distracting than funny. But it’s also because self-awareness doesn’t feel nearly as refreshing as it did in 2009, with seemingly every big studio movie nowadays winking and nodding at audiences, trying to swaddle us in layers of protective irony (that writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick went on to script the vacuous Deadpool films is no accident). Zombieland: Double Tap effortlessly operates in the same groove as the original, but that’s less a compliment than a measure of a failure to evolve.

Revising the world of Zombieland feels like returning to a television program you gave up on watching; though the cast has aged, the character dynamics remain largely the same, if slightly more exaggerated and perhaps overly familiar. Boisterous gunslinger Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) is a little more cartoonish now, while Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) is all grown up. She’s more than old enough to drive, and thus old enough to run away with a pacifist hippie, Berkeley (Avan Jogia), prompting Columbus, Tallahassee, and conwoman Wichita (Emma Stone) to track her down. They’re a makeshift family now, despite still referring to one another by the city aliases that were meant to prevent getting too attached.

A newcomer to their group still goes by her real name, Madison (Zoey Deutch), and as a caricatured dumb blonde, she typifies much of the film’s easy, uninspired comedy. The supremely overqualified cast powers through tiresome, pop culture-laden exchanges via sheer charisma; Stone, though unfortunately reduced to playing a “jealous girlfriend” type, is particularly expressive. But returning director Ruben Fleischer, despite pairing with the usually excellent cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung, too often shoots the actors in close-up, robbing much of the film of the chemistry that the actors display in wider shots.

Double Tap also plays unthinkingly into the zombie fantasy as survivalist gun porn, even going so far as to add a Gen Z commune of idiot pacifists who melt down guns into peace symbols. This sequel, however, is too mediocre for such an idea to register with more than a shrug. The film isn’t using the concept to make a point, after all; behind the self-awareness and the irony is merely a hollow emotional core, a lack of anything to say because saying something would require ambition rather than complacent winks and nods.

Cast: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, Emma Stone, Rosario Dawson, Zoey Deutch, Avan Jogia, Luke Wilson, Thomas Middleditch Director: Ruben Fleischer Screenwriter: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, Dave Callaham Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil Transforms Thorny Folklore into Fluff

In transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product.

1

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Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

“Once upon a time…or perhaps twice upon a time, for you may remember this story,” begins the voiceover narration of Disney’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil. To its credit, the film opens by addressing the elephant in the castle: that we, as modern filmgoers, surely know this story well, through all its incarnations as old-fashioned fairy-tale romance and as insipid CG action-fantasy. But this sequel’s attempt to deflect attention from its own tiresomeness only highlights the cynicism of a corporation that insists on franchising the reboots of its adaptations—on repeating the process of filtering the imaginative irrationality of folk tales through layers upon layers of calculation.

Angelina Jolie returns as Maleficent, once one of the most deliciously evil villainesses in the Disney canon, who now—like Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West—has been reduced to a mildly grumpy environmentalist. Disney has erected a mythos around the character to explain her malevolent deeds—or rather, to expose them as truly good. Channeling themes of historical revisionism and post-colonial white guilt, the Malefi-verse positions its title character as defender of the marshlands known as The Moors and its multifarious magical inhabitants, the Dark Fey, against the incursions and crimes of the late-Renaissance Europeans who live nearby. In the film, whose subtitle has virtually nothing to do with its plot, she’s supplied with an army of fellow Feys primed to resist the destruction of their native lands by greedy humans. The deviousness suggested by Maleficent’s occasional wry, sharp-toothed smiles and curling horns is hardly on display in her actions, which have thoroughly virtuous motivations.

Mistress of Evil posits a “true story” behind the official one recorded in the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, as rather than persecuting the princess subsequently known as Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent has adopted her and raised her. Aurora (Elle Fanning), though she’s grown up among the Fey, has fallen in love with Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson). Throughout, we’re given little evidence of their mutual attraction beyond the fact that they’re both young humans, though Joachim Rønning’s film does attempt to elicit our sympathies for their union with an early scene that stages a YouTube-ready surprise proposal. Though she harbors doubts about this union, Maleficent initially tries to play the good mother, reluctantly accepting the match. But then, at the engagement dinner, Phillip’s mother, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), frames Maleficent for the sleeping curse that befalls King John (Robert Lindsay). Wounded in the subsequent confrontation, Maleficent flees and finds herself in an enclave of other vulture-winged, goat-horned Feys, led by Borra (Ed Skrein) and Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

As played by Jolie, Maleficent is less a character than a pose. Rather than suggesting potency and confidence, the character’s impassiveness conveys indifference, a disinterested neutrality that emanates from behind Jolie’s green contacts and prosthetic cheekbones. Neither Maleficent’s anger at the humans who framed her nor her muted concern for the oppressed Fey succeeds in selling the clichéd plotline concerning indigenous rebellion. As debate rages in the ranks of the outcast Fey regarding a prospective uprising against the murderous humans—the screenplay, of course, makes Conall’s plea for a moderate response to creeping genocide more appealing than Borra’s call for a revolution—Jolie’s perpetually cool persona fails to anchor our feelings in the fate of the forest’s denizens.

The rebellious Fey recruit Maleficent for the same reason that the humans fear her: the magical powers she possesses. Yet Maleficent’s powers are ill-defined, the magical green tendrils that extend from her hands little more than a reference to visual effects devised for Disney’s classic animated Sleeping Beauty from 1959. But aspects of the magic in Mistress of Evil still draw inspiration from its diluted source material: the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale classic that the animated film was based on. In that story, the wise woman’s curse not only puts the princess to sleep, but also freezes all life in the castle in place and envelops the structure in an impenetrable thorn bush. Many princes attempt and fail to forcibly enter the castle, hacking away at the bushes, but after a century, the brambles open up on their own, at last allowing a prince to enter the princess’s chamber, so to speak.

In Mistress of Evil, we see the character that Disney has dubbed Maleficent deploy similar magical effects to much less metaphorical ends: She freezes a cat in the air mid-pounce to protect her were-raven familiar, Diaval (Sam Riley), and she conjures up spindly thorn branches to shield herself and Chonall from a volley of crossbow bolts. The filmmakers, no doubt, see such references to the original tale as forms of felicitous homage, but in transforming folk metaphors into utilitarian attributes of an action hero, Disney exposes the emptiness of their product. The film arranges a marriage between fairy-tale motifs and a CG-algorithm-driven plot that’s as bland and arbitrary as the one it stages between its nondescript human couple, processing thorny folklore into smooth, consumable pop culture.

Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Ed Skrein, Harris Dickinson, Robert Lindsay, Warwick Davis Director: Joachim Rønning Screenwriter: Micah Fitzerman-Blue, Noah Harpster, Linda Woolverton Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: Tell Me Who I Am Feels as One-Sided as the Curated Lie at Its Center

By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the scope of their abuse.

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Tell Me Who I Am
Photo: Netflix

When Alex Lewis was 18 years old, he was involved in a motorcycle crash that left him with a severe case of amnesia. When he awoke in a hospital following the accident, he couldn’t recall where he lived or who his friends were. He didn’t even know his name. As for the woman babbling and pacing around the foot of his bed, he was taken aback to learn that she was his mother. The only thing Alex did remember was that the young man standing before him, Marcus, was his identical twin, and that they had a special connection.

Upon returning to their family estate, Marcus began the lengthy process of reacquainting Alex with the particulars of his life, as well as re-teaching him the basics, like how to tie his shoes. And through it all, Marcus did his best to present a rosy picture of their parents, assuring Alex that their mother, Jill, was “cool” and that they took nice vacations to France when they were kids. It wasn’t until after their parents’ death that Alex began to suspect that their upbringing may not have been as pleasant as Marcus suggested. And after Alex discovered a cabinet full of sex toys in Jill’s room and a photograph of him and his brother naked with their heads torn off, the horrible truth began to dawn on Alex: that he and his brother were sexually abused by their mother. Marcus would go on to confirm the abuse but refused to provide additional details, leaving his brother with questions that would haunt him for years.

Based on a book co-written by Alex and Marcus, Ed Perkins’s Tell Me Who I Am tells the brothers’ story with an Errol Morris-lite mix of expressionistic reenactments and interviews in which the subjects speak directly into the camera. Like the similarly themed Three Identical Strangers, the film parcels out disarming hints and shocking revelations at a steady clip, with a view toward maximizing the emotional impact of the material. It’s undeniably effective and affecting, escalating toward a harrowing confrontation-cum-reconciliation between the two brothers in which Marcus finally reveals the full horror of what they endured as kids: that, in addition to being abused by their mother, they were subjected to sexual assaults at the hands of multiple abusers, in what essentially amounted to an elite pedophilia ring.

In its richer, more rewarding moments, Tell Me Who I Am hints at the complex relationship between memory and identity. Alex relies on photographs to fill in the blanks in his memory, and yet, these seemingly objective recordings of the past, curated for him by his brother, are as conspicuous for what they reveal as for what they don’t. (As Alex muses at one point, “We take photos of weddings. You never take photos at funerals.”) But for a film about the power of getting a full and accurate accounting of the truth, it’s frustrating how little Tell Me Who I Am reckons with its own revelations. By focusing so narrowly on the Lewis brothers’ relationship with their mother, the film inadvertently minimizes the sheer scope of the boys’ abuse.

Tell Me Who I Am hints at the brothers having been caught up in a seemingly extensive sexual abuse ring, one involving aristocrats and at least one well-known artist, all of whom remain unnamed. It’s a scandal reminiscent of recently exposed conspiracies of silence that surround wrongdoing, such as those involving Jeffrey Epstein, Jimmy Savile, and the Catholic Church. And while Perkins’s film wants us to believe that the brothers’ saga reaches a definitive conclusion when they tearfully embrace after Alex learns about what happened to him, it leaves the viewer with a host of unanswered questions. Who exactly was part of Jill’s social circle? How extensive was Alex and Marcus’s abuse? Were there other victims?

Even a cursory glance at news articles about the men and reviews of their book suggests how much Perkins has massaged the details of the Lewis brothers’ lives to craft his sleek, emotionally punchy narrative. From watching Tell Me Who I Am, one wouldn’t know that there was at least one other confirmed victim: Alex and Marcus’s younger brother, whose existence the film doesn’t even acknowledge. By forcing Alex and Marcus’s story into such a rigidly linear narrative of redemption, the film ends up losing sight of its subjects altogether, reducing them to mere representations of its core theme: the brother who wants to learn about his past versus the brother who’d rather keep it buried.

That’s why Tell Me Who I Am’s attempt to end on a note of closure—“It’s over finally,” Alex says, as the camera tracks away from the house where he was abused—comes off as phony. Perhaps Alex feels that he finally understands who he really is, but the film leaves us with so many unanswered questions, it’s hard not feel that the picture we’ve been given of these men is nearly as misleading and incomplete as the one Marcus provided to Alex all those years ago.

Director: Ed Perkins Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Gloss of Stuffed Is at Odds with Taxidermy’s Inherent Boldness

Erin Derham’s unadventurous aesthetic inoculates her from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.

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Stuffed
Photo: Music Box Films

Erin Derham’s Stuffed opens with a montage of the various taxidermists she profiles throughout her documentary. This opening lays bare the film’s argument in unmistakable terms: that taxidermy is an art form, closer to the work of Tim Burton than that of Norman Bates. But it also exposes the film’s most unbearable flaw, as Derham supports her hagiographic argument by sewing together her case studies with a relentless, and relentlessly generic, score that speaks to her devotion to formula.

It’s an unadventurous formula at odds with the documentary’s attempts to establish taxidermy as a highly complex, anti-paradigmatic endeavor involving great amounts of scientific precision, as well as creative audacity and whimsical experimentation. Derham insists so much on taxidermists’ labor being more than the mere production of replicas that her refusal to adopt a more playful aesthetic approach as she portrays the quirky imagination of taxidermists feels like equivocation. It’s as if she approached the documentary’s making with thick rubber gloves, thus inoculating herself from taxidermy’s subversive spirit.

This may be the result of a certain courting, conscious or not, of digital streaming platforms through the mimicry of impersonally glossy production values. In any case, it leaves the viewer in a position akin to that of the fussy eater trying to pick unwelcomed ingredients out of their food. We want to savor the taxidermists’ artistry, except the clichéd polish that envelops the film keeps getting in the way. It’s an artistry that’s bold by design, as the taxidermist utilizes dead matter not with the utilitarian goal of resurrecting it, but as raw material to sculpt something altogether new. If the Paris Museum of Hunting and Nature invited artists Sophie Calle and Serena Carone in 2018 to intervene in its collection of retired guns and taxidermic realism precisely because of the unusual juxtaposition of conceptual art and refurbished dead matter, moose in red gowns and all, Stuffed defines taxidermy itself as already marrying fanciful concepts with the illusion of beastly or avian resurrection.

Taxidermist Madison Rubin tells us she loves “seeing the insides and the anatomy of things” as she skins 11 ermines with the meticulousness of a sculptor, or a dollmaker. Others evoke the resurgence of taxidermy, which used to be particularly popular in the Victorian era, in these times of digital de-materialization. And some attest to the specificity of the medium—how no other art form can convey texture the way taxidermy does. Yet Derham seems more invested in glossing over the numerous chapters she’s divided the film’s narrative into than in exploring the depths of her story. Taxidermy and sustainability, taxidermy and climate change, the ethics of taxidermy, taxidermy and museums, taxidermy as a business, taxidermy in fashion—all of these get addressed too rapidly, sometimes in just a couple of minutes.

The rush feels particularly unfortunate when Derham turns her attention to rogue taxidermy, a Lynchean subgenre located at the intersection of dioramas, cabinets of curiosities, and surrealist art. Here, Calle and Carone’s red ballgown-wearing stuffed roadkill would feel right at home—that is, delightfully out of place in the world. Instead, Stuffed quickly continues in its quest of a happy, peppy denouement to match the pristine porelessness of its sheen.

Director: Erin Derham Distributor: Music Box Films Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Trick Will Treat You to Meatheaded, Commentary-Free Ultraviolence

Patrick Lussier’s film is an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy.

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Trick
Photo: RLJE Films

In the 2000s, a film company called the Asylum flooded Blockbuster shelves with “mockbusters”: cheaply produced, straight-to-DVD knockoffs of box-office dominators with titles such as Transmorphers, Ghosthunters, and Snakes on a Train. Patrick Lussier’s horror mystery Trick feels like an Asylum spin on Todd Phillips’s Joker, as both are about marginalized white guys who paint their faces, start killing people, and become kings of the incels. But where the licensed DC spinoff is an irresponsible and irredeemable pity party for a creep, this cheap lookalike is just an incompetent, nihilistic exercise in gore and pseudophilosophy, assembled crudely from horror and cop-movie clichés.

Trick opens with a handy list of the dictionary definitions of its title, hinting at the filmmakers’ estimation of their target audience’s intelligence. Trick is also the name of the film’s villain, short for Patrick (Thom Niemann), an 18-year-old who, on Halloween night in 2015, attends a party with his classmates in their Hudson Valley town. During a game of spin the bottle—played with a knife—Trick is pressured to kiss another dude but instead starts stabbing and slashing everyone. (The subtext of repressed homosexuality is never alluded to again in the film.) Incapacitated and brought to urgent care, Patrick breaks free from his restraints and drops more bodies until police shoot him repeatedly in a hallway, knocking him out of a second-story window, neatly alluding simultaneously to both John Carpenter’s original Halloween (the defenestration) and Rick Rosenthal’s 1981 sequel (the hospital setting). Trick staggers to the river and vanishes, presumed dead.

But more killings follow, on or around Halloween, in towns downriver from the first. Detective Mike Denver, the only cop who believes Patrick survived, is played by Omar Epps, who credibly delivers preposterous dialogue like a pro. In the film’s most ludicrous killing, Trick uses a crane to swing the tombstone of an F.B.I. agent (Vanessa Aspillaga) he murdered the year before through the windshield of a car in order to smash a wounded police officer (Dani Shay) sitting inside, a scene Denver sums up to a colleague: “He murdered your deputy with the gravestone of a fed I got killed. Who does that?” Then, after a beat, “What does that?”

Good question. To be scary, a horror villain needs either to be a credible menace or tap into a more primal social fear. But Trick is just implausible. He’s resilient like Rasputin, more violent than a rabid animal. At a time when cellphones and social media are ubiquitous, no one ever got a photo of him, and his classmates can barely even describe his features, just that he was smart as fuck—like, smarter than the teachers. The film shows off his far-fetched cleverness when he kills a different F.B.I. agent (Robert G. McKay) with a Rube Goldbergian guillotine involving a sharp wire, a utility pole, and a bundle of cinderblocks. Its employment makes for Purge-level spectacle without the social commentary to back it up. The beheading is just meatheaded ultraviolence—as inane as any other aspect of Trick.

Cast: Omar Epps, Ellen Adair, Kristina Reyes, Tom Atkins, Max Miller, Thom Neimann, Jamie Kennedy Director: Patrick Lussier Screenwriter: Todd Farmer, Patrick Lussier Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Robert Forster: Winning in the Late Innings

The Oscar-nominated actor brought a sense of honor and dignity to every role he played.

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Robert Forster
Photo: Miramax

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive opens with a nighttime ride into oblivion. A limo drifts through the lightless void of the Hollywood Hills, red taillights burning in the blackness. An enigmatic woman, ebony hair and curvaceous red lips lending her the air of a tragic beauty, sits in the back by herself. The limo pulls over, and after the woman says, “We don’t stop here,” the driver aims a gun at her, but a gaggle of joyriding kids comes speeding around the curve and crashes into the vehicle. The woman climbs out of the wreckage stupefied and traipses into the hills, leaving behind the mangled metal and bodies.

Soon, a stoic detective arrives on the scene. He looks like a lawman, serious, a little sad, his face etched with the wrinkles of time. He examines the cars, offers a few terse observations, gazes out at the nocturnal city sprawling before him. It’s Robert Forster’s only scene in the film, and it’s an indelible one, imbued with mystery and menace, an attempt to explain the unexplainable. Saying fewer than 20 words and appearing in only a handful of shots, he exudes an air of wisdom and weariness—that of an indolent man who’s seen some shit and knows the horrors lurking ahead. In a film of dreamy logic and ineffaceable images, Forster’s taciturn detective acts as the final glimpse of reality before we slip into a world of Hollywood hopes and fantasy.

Forster, who died of brain cancer at the age of 78 this past Friday, was a prolific actor who experienced a remarkable second act in his mid-50s after giving a deeply empathetic and vulnerable performance as a love-struck bail bondsman in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, a film populated by wounded characters leading unamazing lives, and who aspire to transcend mediocrity. “My career by then was dead,” Forster told the AV Club’s Will Harris in a 2011 interview. “No agent, no manager, no lawyer, no nothing…I could not believe that he [Tarantino] was talking about the Max Cherry role.”

Like so many of Tarantino’s films, Jackie Brown is replete with colorful, loquacious characters whose banter is clever, trenchant, and self-referential, but Forster’s Max Cherry is reserved and crestfallen, a man who’s settled into complacency and finds in Pam Grier’s flight attendant an unexpected inspiration. It’s one of American cinema’s great unconsummated love stories. Forster is a subtle actor, playing Max as an Everyman who chases people for a living but never seems to find what he’s looking for, and who willingly embroils himself in a dangerous situation because of love. He’s smart, self-sufficient, a decent guy, and yet for Jackie Brown he’s willing to risk his life, or whatever mundane existence he calls a life.

Forster was one of those great actors who appeared in far too few great films. His filmography is rife with bad films, though he was invariably a dependable presence in everything he did. He began his career promisingly, with a supporting role in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, and earned renown for his turn as an ambitious and ill-fated news cameraman in Haskell Wexler’s incandescent Medium Cool. He played a private eye in 1930s Hollywood in the show Banyon (his role in Mulholland Drive almost feels like a brief homage to the short-lived series) and appeared in a slew of genre movies for the rest of the 1970s and 1980s. Of note is Lewis Teague’s Alligator, in which a gargantuan reptile terrorizes a city, William Lustig’s nihilistic grindhouse flick Vigilante, and a rare villainous turn in Delta Force, opposite the indefatigable Chuck Norris.

It wasn’t until Jackie Brown and his subsequent Oscar nomination that Forster reentered the public consciousness. The way Tarantino exhumes old, often “trash” films when crafting his paeans to moving pictures, he also has a preternatural skill for resurrecting the careers of forgotten or faded actors. Tarantino fought for Forster to get the part. When news of Forster’s death went public, the director said in a statement:

“Today the world is left with one less gentlemen. One less square shooter. One less good man. One less wonderful father. One less marvelous actor. I remember all the breakfasts we had at silver spoons. All the stories. All the kind words. All the support. Casting Robert Forster in Jackie Brown was one of the best choices I’ve ever made in my life. I will miss you dearly my old friend.”

Forster appeared in a panoply of listless films and television programs throughout the 2000s (his appearance in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants in 2011 being an exception) but became a household face again in 2018, when he took on the role of Sheriff Frank Truman, Harry S. Truman’s brother, on the third season of Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Whereas Michael Ontkean exuded a mercurial youthfulness on the original series, that of a warm-hearted, just man capable of fiery spontaneity, Forster plays the elder Sheriff Truman rather pensively, sagacious and serene. Which is to say, he acts with the wisdom accrued by experience.

Forster also appeared in a season five episode of Breaking Bad, as a vacuum store owner and “disappearer” named Ed who helps Bryan Cranston’s Walt change identities. A stable presence amid the histrionic theatrics that defined the show’s approach to acting, Forster gives an understated performance and a sense of the real-world left behind by Vince Gilligan’s increasingly combustible melodrama. Forster reprised the part this year in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, the actor’s final screen credit. In a film-stealing scene, Forster stands steadfast and stoical against Aaron Paul’s desperate, bedraggled Jesse Pinkman, refusing to perform his disappearing service over a $1,800 discrepancy. The viewer is, of course, rooting for Jesse, yet one can’t help but respect the conviction of Forster’s unruffled professional. The actor brings a sense of honor and dignity to the role, as he did with every role. Forster was a safe, reliable presence, someone you trusted, unflustered, earnest, whether he was fighting monstrous alligators or swooning after air stewardesses.

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Review: Cyrano, My Love Thinks Art Is Only Born of Romantic Passion

The film is imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls Shakespeare in Love.

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Photo: Roadside Attractions

Alexis Michalik’s Cyrano, My Love wears its fondness for Shakespeare in Love very much on its sleeve. Though it serves up nuggets of truth, its take on Edmond Rostand (Thomas Solivérès) and the turbulent circumstances surrounding his creation of Cyrano de Bergerac is an outlandish one, imbued with an airless blend of buoyant comedy and soap-operatic backstage drama that recalls John Madden’s Oscar winner. And while Michalik positions Rostand as the story’s triumphant artist, the French dramatist is often reduced to a skittish ninny—as opposed to the pompous ass that Joseph Fiennes’s Shakespeare was positioned as—whose great art emanates not from the mind, but the cockles of the heart.

For a film so hellbent on the notion that Cyrano de Bergerac was inspired not only by actual events, but real emotions, there’s surprisingly little effort made to articulate with any specificity the conflicted feelings behind Rostand’s penning of what would become the most famous French play of all time. The initial catalyst for his play’s central conceit occurs when he steps in to help an actor friend, Léonidas (Tom Leeb), struggling to find the words to woo a costume designer, Jeanne (Lucie Boujenah), on whom he has a crush. Rostand, in one of the film’s many blatant nods to Cyrano de Bergerac, begins to feed his friend a barrage of romantic lines and relish the secrecy with which he can play out a love affair without disturbing his marriage with his endlessly patient and supportive wife, Rosemonde (Alice de Lencquesaing).

Yet, rather than teasing out the ample psychosexual baggage that should arise from the cognitive dissonance of Rostand writing daily love letters to Jeanne, his unknowing muse, while still professing, with complete honesty, that his only true love is his wife, Michalik pivots his focus to the swirling chaos of Cyrano de Bergerac’s production. With Rostand’s emotional conflict left fairly nebulous, Cyrano, My Love never quite gets to the root of the author’s inspiration, leaving its familiar theatrical farce about the troubles of mounting a stage play grounded in neither genuine emotion nor any palpable stakes.

As the hurdles that Rostand and company face in staging Cyrano de Bergerac grow bigger and Rostand writes pages to be rehearsed before the ink dries, the film introduces a parade of quirky, ostentatious characters. From the historical, such as Sarah Bernhardt (Clémentine Célarié) and Anton Chekhov (Misha Leskot), to the imagined, such as a prostitute (Mathilde Seigner) who’s foisted into the lead role of Roxane, each one is more thinly conceived than the next, with eccentricities dialed up to 11. The most egregious of these larger-than-life characterizations, however, is Monsieur Honoré (Jean-Michel Martial), the black café owner whose sole purpose is to repeatedly tap into his struggles as a minority as a means to galvanize the all-white cast and crew, who he then cheers on from the sidelines.

Cyrano, My Love’s lone performative bright spot comes in the form of a surprisingly nimble turn by Olivier Gourmet, known primarily for his dour turns in many of the Dardenne brothers’ films. Gourmet lends both humor and pathos to the play’s famous but desperate lead actor, Constant Coquelin. But while Coquelin steals the spotlight in a number of scenes, Rostand remains little more than a perpetually anxiety-ridden artist who virtually stumbles into writing a masterpiece during a helter-skelter production. And with little care given to rendering the intense emotional tumult that spurred his artistic process, all the pandemonium of Cyrano, My Love proves to be much ado about nothing.

Cast: Thomas Solivérès, Olivier Gourmet, Mathilde Seigner, Tom Leeb, Lucie Boujenah, Alice de Lencquesaing, Clémentine Célarié, Igor Gotesman, Dominique Pinon, Simon Abkarian, Marc Andréoni, Jean-Michel Martial, Olivier Lejeune, Antoine Dulery, Alexis Michalik Director: Alexis Michalik Screenwriter: Alexis Michalik Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 112 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: In Greener Grass, White Picket Fences Cast Shadows Like Tendrils

In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance, as the suburbs have already won.

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Greener Grass
Photo: IFC Films

The opening credits of Greener Grass linger on a twitching, toothy smile covered in braces. Everyone in the film wears braces. Everyone drives a golf cart, too, and dresses in gentle pinks and blues. The lighting is soft and sun-drenched, an effect that’s most pronounced during the film’s soccer matches. In the opening of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the camera creeps through a suburb’s pleasant veneer to reveal the rot that festers beneath. But for Greener Grass co-directors, co-writers, and co-stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, the very surface is the thing that’s so unsettling, a place populated by slithering, rictus-grinning meat puppets penned in by white picket fences and their own crippling need to conform.

The trouble, if you could call it that, begins when Jill (DeBoer) abruptly gifts Lisa (Luebbe) with her newborn baby as they watch their other children play soccer. This isn’t, in the film’s bizarre conception of suburbia, a particularly outrageous act. At worst, it’s overly generous, like giving someone a gift more expensive than they’re comfortable accepting; another neighbor, Kim Ann (Mary Holland), later laments that she wasn’t given the child instead. The children in Greener Grass are essentially property, status symbols to reflect upon their owners in their pristine homes and yards, all of which feeds into an undercurrent of pervasive competition that nonetheless reinforces conformity and simply not rocking the boat.

Everything is seemingly interchangeable in Greener Grass. At a cookout, it takes a full conversation for Jill and Lisa to notice that they’re smooching and hanging on the arms of the wrong husbands, Dennis (Neil Casey and Nick (Beck Bennett), respectively. And when Jill’s young son, Julian (Julian Hilliard), inexplicably transforms into a dog, she’s horrified, but Nick, the boy’s father, seems pleased: Julian may no longer be able to take the advanced math class, but he’s now a prodigy when it comes to playing catch in the backyard.

There isn’t much of a traditional plot to the film, which plays more as a recurring series of sketches that subtly further Jill’s downward spiral. DeBoer and Luebbe let their scenes linger long past the point of discomfort, both in the length of mannered dialogue exchanges and the amount of time they hold a shot without cutting; the camera gingerly pulls out or pushes in while characters perform odd actions in the background, like perpetually folding tighty-whities or fishing out a seemingly infinite supply of pocket change. It feels voyeuristic, and sometimes it is: In one scene, a hand appears to reveal that we’re watching a POV shot, and in another, an off-screen voice begins breathing heavily and starts mock-repeating dialogue.

A schoolteacher, Miss Human (D’Arcy Carden), fixates on the deaths of American pioneers making their way to the West. In pursuit of “a better life,” they lost things along the way, as the people of Greener Grass have lost themselves in their migration to the suburbs. The film is more unsettling for its lack of an ordinary plot structure where, say, Jill might break out of her suburban funk or get everything to explode with violence in a revolt against conformity. In the film’s world, there can be no real resistance. Here, the burbs have already won, having already sent out the white picket fences like tendrils as far as the eye can see. There is no escape.

Cast: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe, Beck Bennett, Neil Casey, Mary Holland, D’Arcy Carden, Janicza Bravo, Dot-Marie Jones, Lauren Adams, Julian Hillard, Asher Miles Fallica Director: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Screenwriter: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 100 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Cave Pays Wrenching Tribute to the Doctors Saving Lives in Syria

Its depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after The Cave’s doctors have left Ghouta.

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The Cave
Photo: National Geographic Documentary Films

Feras Fayyad’s documentary The Cave concludes with what almost seems like a non sequitur: After the staff at a Syrian underground hospital are finally forced to evacuate their war-torn city, the film fades to a low-angle shot of a submerged World War II bomber plane. Kjetil C. Astrup’s camera tracks slowly past the moss-covered plane and an unexploded shell that lies nearby. Yes, it’s a 1940s bomber, and The Cave is about Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, that’s subjected to constant bombardment from contemporary warplanes, but what does this image have to do with the ongoing Syrian Civil War?

Given how instantly recognizable this bomber is, despite its present state of disrepair, speaks to how familiar we are with the massive political and moral sins of the 20th century. Fayyad’s point would appear to be that these sins are being recapitulated today in the Middle East. It’s not only the relentless bombing and devastating chemical weapon attacks captured in the film that evoke images of Europe during the West’s greatest conflict, but also the treatment of people attempting to escape the horrors of the Syrian Civil War.

Over the image of the bomber plane, Fayyad places statistics about the tens of thousands of refugees who’ve drowned fleeing the conflict. As in the omnipresent WWII stories we repeatedly tell ourselves are warnings against ever letting such things happen again, thousands of people in the Middle East are trapped, starving, and suffocating, their homes and livelihoods destroyed by a global war being carried out over their heads.

By the time the submerged bomber appears on screen, those schooled in the history of occupied Europe (or who are simply avid tourists) may have already drawn another parallel, as The Cave, the name given to the underground hospital in Ghouta, evokes the Hospital in the Rock, the Budapest hospital built within a bunker under a hill in the leadup to WWII. From inside The Cave, where the camera keeps us for almost the entirety of the documentary, the sound of bombs is muffled, but their consequences are unavoidable. After every raid, the hospital’s dimly lit underground hallway fills up with desperate families carting the wounded, weeping mothers shoving others out of the way to check on their dying sons, and orchestral music streaming on Dr. Salim’s smartphone. The Mozart helps him focus and, he explains, replaces anesthetic, to which the hospital doesn’t have access.

Heading the small staff that operates The Cave during the years-long siege of eastern Ghouta is pediatrician Dr. Amani, a physician so superhumanly dedicated that she’d come off as an idealized abstraction in a fiction film. Fayyad doesn’t delve into her backstory, but Amani appears to come from a relatively privileged background: Her family, whom she speaks to regularly on the phone, seems to be in a safe place, and she’s well-educated and a feminist, an inclination she expresses strategically to the camera and, when necessary, to defend her occupation against overtly misogynist patients. Despite her presumed access to avenues of flight, she’s stayed behind to treat juvenile victims of bombing campaigns and malnourishment, even paying dangerous house visits to diagnose the children of women who can’t leave their homes. Though brave and generous, she’s no saintly paragon of modesty; on occasion, she rages against the regime and their allies, and the 30-year-old outwardly longs for a regular day-to-day life in which she might be permitted to wear mascara.

Fayyad saves its most graphic depiction of the consequences of the siege for the latter part of the documentary, as a chemical weapon attack perpetrated by the regime and its Russian allies sends dozens of choking people—many children—rushing to The Cave for help. Fayyad ratchets up the suspense with a booming score that crescendos as the staff gradually realizes they’re handling patients who are choking rather than bleeding, and recognizes the smell of chlorine beginning to permeate the halls. Despite the real human suffering on screen, the whiff of rhetorical construction supplied by the score and the accelerating pace of the editing makes the scene feel a bit too much like a Hollywood trope, crafting suspense out of pain.

Perhaps, on the other hand, that moment of tension could be said to effectively convey some aspect of the events as the doctors felt it. Other excessively stylistic elements in The Cave, though, work against the urgency of its messaging. The handheld, intimate format of the bulk of the film is preceded by a still and distant opening shot of the Ghouta skyline, in which missiles are shown gliding into the mass of buildings and erupting into slowly moving dust and smoke. Ironically, this shot almost poeticizes the ongoing destruction of the city, its cool perspective conflicting sharply with the later close-ups of suffering bombing victims.

As the film goes on, the bombings draw closer to The Cave, part of which is actually destroyed by one raid. Samaher, the doctor put in charge of preparing the hospital’s meager rations, cooks in fits and starts, running away from the stove whenever the sound of a plane rattles the nearby wall. Many of the male members of the team chide her for her skittish, sometimes nervously playful behavior, but candid shots pick up even the even-keeled Salim crying after a rare and brief Skype call with his family. The film’s depiction of the perpetual terror of living in a war zone will stick with viewers long after Amani, Salim, and Samaher have left Ghouta.

Director: Feras Fayyad Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 96 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Film

Review: The Addams Family Is an Ooky Show of Confused Messaging

Throughout, the film tirelessly hammers home the point of being true to yourself.

1.5

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The Addams Family
Photo: United Artists Releasing

The Addams family has always proudly embraced its otherness with a mix of confidence and indifference to the opinions of judgy neighbors. And Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan’s animated The Addams Family is no different in that regard, setting up its fish-out-of-water scenario as soon as Morticia (Charlize Theron) and Gomez (Oscar Isaac) take off to New Jersey and settle into the Goth mansion where they’ll raise their two children, Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard). All, of course, with the help of their loopy Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) and loyal servant, Lurch (Conrad Vernon), whose rocking out on the mansion’s giant pipe organ constitutes the majority of the film’s score.

With the family’s strict adherence to ceremonies steeped in their vaguely Eastern European roots, particularly the saber dance that Pugsley prepares for throughout the film, the metaphor for the immigrant experience writes itself. But The Addams Family’s targets are ultimately not the seemingly resentful bigots who fear the Addamses’ presence in their neighborhood, but an outmoded notion of suburban conformity that harks back to the 1950s. MAGA-esque indignation, which occasionally creeps in through a comment spewed from within an angry mob, is dwarfed by a distaste for, of all things, tract housing and HGTV-esque renovations.

In fact, the film’s villain, Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), doesn’t fear the Addamses for their cultural differences, but rather for the devaluing affect their eyesore of a house, perched on a hill, will have on the community of homes she’s building nearby and planning to market on her hugely popular television show. While Margaux’s town is called Assimilation, the lockstep conformity demanded here isn’t one that requires the Addamses to reject any deeply held beliefs or cultural norms, merely to apply a quick slap of paint to their home and endure a wardrobe change or two. This leaves The Addams Family feeling pretty toothless, even for a family film, as it’s unwilling to even pinpoint the true roots of the townspeople’s fears. Its eventual forgiveness of their thinly veiled jingoism, passing the enraged residents off as otherwise friendly, well-meaning people who simply fell victim to the manipulations of the greedy Margaux, only further dilutes any potentially relevant commentary.

In a subplot involving Wednesday’s venturing into Assimilation Middle School and befriending Margaux’s daughter, Parker (Elsie Fisher), The Addams Family offers an intriguing twist on the idea of the Addamses as a perfect family. When Wednesday shows signs of accepting Parker’s fashion advice, she finds in her family, particularly Morticia, the very same intolerance they’re confronted with around town. But this nugget of wisdom is soon lost in the wind when Wednesday returns home to protect her family in their hour of need. Until the finale, the film tirelessly hammers home the importance of being true to yourself, yet its ultimate resolution, one of relatively uneasy compromise, confuses even that simple point. You be you, but eventually everyone wants to fit in one way or another, so maybe change just a bit?

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz, Finn Wolfhard, Nick Kroll, Snoop Dogg, Bette Midler, Allison Janney, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Elsie Fisher, Tituss Burgess Director: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan Screenwriter: Matt Lieberman, Pamela Pettler Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 87 min Rating: PG Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack

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